Impressions from the Field

Judging from media reports, Novi Pazar, Sandžak’s main city, appears unstable, perhaps even dangerous. Reports often connect Novi Pazar with illegal drug trade, increased religious conservatism, high unemployment and interethnic tensions between Serbians and Bosniaks.

My reception in the city was extremely warm. People were eager to share information and help find me a place to stay and introduce me to other people. That is not to say there are not problems. All of the above issues do in fact negatively impact the town. But aside from the high unemployment, the other problems are not easily visible. And after spending four weeks in and around the city, I’ve come to understand that tensions also exist among the Bosniaks living there. In fact, tensions seem to run higher between political and religious Bosniak factions compared to Serbs and Bosniaks. This revelation will be the subject of a future blog. For now, I want to briefly explain the interethnic dynamics.

This mural was painted by one of the Urban In projects in an effort to illustrate interethnic relations.

Interviews with locals seemed to downplay the tensions between Serbians and Bosniaks. Instead, the common reaction to questions relating to interethnic relations among the people was pride, particularly in the care paid to neighborly relations among Serbs and Bosniaks. I was told this was the main reason why the war that raged in Bosnia i Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo did not reach Novi Pazar. It is this care, or perhaps careful interaction among the nacije (ethnicities) that preceded and endured after the 1990’s. Bosniaks and Serbs told me that they know how far they can go when interacting with one another. They do it out of respect, and they are all tired of war. On this level, relations among Serbs and Bosniaks seem fine. And there are programs aimed at bringing Serb and Bosniak as well as Roma kids together in an effort to foster interethnic cooperation. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Urban In, the Red Cross and Dom za Mlade (Center for Youth) are vital supporters in this effort.

There is another side to the story. Serbs and Bosniaks live quite separate lives. Most Serbs live in an enclave that is somewhat removed from the Bosniak-dominated center. One might say that the peace that now exists is built on a shaky foundation. Yet, I would argue the contrary. The peace, I was told, has been preserved for three generations (and perhaps beyond). In the 1920-30’s, respect between Serbs and Bosniaks was the highest form of interethnic relations in Novi Pazar. There might be several reasons why this was the case. In the 1930’s, the Balkan Peninsula was in the progress of becoming a unified land for South-Slavs, or Jugosloveni. In other words, Serbs (as well as Macedonians, Croatians and Slovenes) considered the fall of the Ottoman Empire as a victory worth celebrating – a new era in which Slavs were to be the masters of their own destiny. This is not the case for Bosniaks who have a different interpretation of history. The year 1912 is thus burned in to the popular memory of Novi Pazar as a year when fear dominated the public sphere among Bosniaks, alas Muslimani (Muslims).

The demise of the Ottoman Empire came as a shock to many of the first generation post-Turkic Bosniaks that were part of the Umma (Islamic Community), and led to a large-scale migration of Bosniaks to Turkey. These circumstances are masterfully described in Ujdurma (Trick, Ruse or Fraud) by the Novi Pazar author Mevluda Melajac who has written several historical novels about the Sandžak. The picture Melajac paints in her novels resonates with sentiments I encountered in Novi Pazar’s streets.

Plaque hanging in Novi Pazar’s old Ottoman Bathhouse in the city center.

One elderly Bosniak told me while sipping Turkish coffee that his family has called Novi Pazar home for seven generations. “You can look it up in the archives if you want,” he said. He was not the only one for whom the Ottoman period does not seem long gone. The older gentlemen, as is the case for many others in Novi Pazar, remembers the Turkish presence on the Peninsula with fondness. In other words, the creation of nation states in the Balkans during the interwar-period cut off Bosniaks from their Turkish Umma that encompassed many nations far beyond the Peninsula.

The ties between Turkey and Bosniaks are accordingly strong and perhaps never fully faded away. According to popular belief in Novi Pazar, there are between three and four million Bosniaks in Turkey. It is this Turkish-Bosniak community that provided Sandžak-Bosniaks with the necessary tools to run and upkeep its famous textile production that saved Novi Pazar – and by extension Serbia – during the economic sanctions of the 1990’s. Turkey is therefore not returning to the Balkan Peninsula, as is claimed in Darko Tanasković’s Neoosmanizam-Povratak Turske na Balkan (Ne-Osmanism, Turkey’s Return to the Balkan Peninsula) as Turkey never left in the first place – at least not in Novi Pazar’s collective memory. It simply faded away a bit with Tito’s “Brotherhood and Unity”.

This may explain the second post-Ottoman period, or first generation Jugoslav population’s near absence of ethnocentricity. Time and again, I was told that for as long as Jugoslavia existed, people were not interested in knowing who was a Bosniak, Serb or Croat, etc. While one may ascribe this notion to melancholia for better times, I would attribute such statements to the fact that “Jugoslavs” recognize the disadvantage of nationalism with clarity. These days, one knows who is a Serb or a Bosniak once again. Intermarriage is rare in Novi Pazar, I was told by a young man I befriended there. He was dating a young Serbian girl for a while, though had to break up the relationship because her parents did not wish for her to date a Bosniak. What we see then is a 360 degree turn in three generations regarding how people perceive ethnicity in Novi Pazar.